Honoring Your Past Without Cluttering Your Present

That’s one of the bracelets my mother wore in the hospital after she had my sister and I. You  see the ‘B’ there after her name?

That’s for me. I was the second born twin.

Years ago my mother was going through her own sentimental keepsakes and asked me if I wanted this bracelet. I’ve kept it with my jewellery collection since then.

Right now that means it lives in a small leather pouch with a few necklaces, two sets of earrings and a set of four stacking rings. Every few weeks I put some earrings on and I get a glimpse of the bracelet.

I like thinking about how this bracelet was made. That a nurse or clerk in the maternity ward at Lions Gate Hospital in December of 1977 sorted all the beads and strung them by hand. And that that person made two bracelets, almost identical except one had a ‘B’ and the other had an ‘A’.

This bracelet will be with me for the rest of my life.

Some day my son, or maybe even a grandchild, will sort through my things and probably end up tossing it out.

It won’t mean that much to them. They might not even connect it’s significance.

It might be so out of date, so far away from what they know, that they don’t recognize it as a mark of my birth and a connection to my own mother, their grandmother or great grandmother.

At some point, all of your keepsakes and trinkets and markers of the past will just be trash to someone else.

Obviously I’m not without a sentimental side. I’ve kept a small file of report cards, awards and even an essay or two from elementary and high school. I have one of our wedding invitations and the menu card from our reception in there too.

Once a year I might browse through them while pulling out a copy of our mortgage or filing a tax statement. Is that reason enough to keep them?

It’s reason enough for me.

I’ve had a lot of comments and questions about sentimental clutter. What to keep, what to send away and how to break strong emotional ties with a few pieces of paper that hold so much memory.

This is a hard one.

No one can make those decisions for you. You have to go through those concert ticket stubs, locks of hair from a first hair cut and letters and decide for yourself.

I can tell you what’s worked for me and what others have had success with. Here are some strategies for culling sentimental clutter:

  • Give yourself a set amount of space. It could be a shoe box, a file cabinet or your attic. Decide how much room you’ll give yourself for mementos and keepsakes and then prioritize what you have to fit in that space.
  • Keep track of how often you look at it. That once a year peak into my Kindergarten report card is enough to for me to keep a 1/4 inch legal size envelope of papers in my little folder of files. If you have a basement filled with boxes of sentimental items, and you’re not even sure what’s in them, sort them, label them, and then put a date on the box each time you take an afternoon to look through them.
  • Display and archive. Take your craft skills and put them to work. Make a memory album or a display box to remember that beach vacation instead of throwing seas shells in a Ziploc bag.
  • What do you want to leave behind. It’s a morbid thought but when you’re gone, what do you want your family to look through? Boxes of junk that means nothing to them, or a curated collection of keepsakes from your life?

The other thing that’s helped me break away from some of my sentimental clutter is living in the present. Nostalgia can be fickle. One moment you’re enjoying the picture of your young 20 something self, the next your wistful for your unlined face and the next your lamenting the burden of your present, the family, the responsibility.

Honour your past but don’t pine for it. Loving your present, even if it includes diapers, middle of the night wake-ups and grey hair, can help you let go of the need to store every keepsake and piece of memorabilia.

I’ve got a few things to remember my childhood, my university days and my rowing career but a lot of it is gone. I don’t need it. If I want to think of those days I’ll talk to my mother or siblings or call someone that was part of it all and reminisce. Much more satisfying than looking at my athlete ID card from the 1998 Under 23 World Championships.

Has anyone else pared down their stash of sentimental items? How did you decide what stayed and what went?

PS. I’ll have another post dedicated to kid clutter and art work soon.

killing the green eyed monster

cartoon from www.weblogcartoons.com

Cartoon by Dave Walker. Find more cartoons you can freely re-use on your blog at We Blog Cartoons.

Reader Stacey sent me this question the other week:

How do you conquer jealousy/envy when it comes to material possessions?

Stacey’s question was quite a bit longer than that and her focus was actually on homes, but I thought it was such a good topic that I wanted to explore it further here.

I’m not immune to pangs of envy.

Embracing a life with less stuff has certainly helped but I’m still prone to the occasional bought of jealousy.

Lots of our friends and family have nice homes, go on spectacular vacations, are in great shape and have fabulous wardrobes.

Sometimes I think wistfully, why not me? Wouldn’t that be nice to own/do/be.

But there are several things that have helped me curb jealousy or envy to a sometimes quiet whisper rather than a full blown, break out the credit card or tears, roar.

Live your values.

When we were in a pile of consumer debt, and I was checking BabySteals.com every morning, we were extrinsically focused and motivated.

Could we get a bigger home?

Should we get a new car?

What’s the next vacation we can go on?

What’s our income like compared to our friends?

Did you see ___ got a new ____ and are going to _____ and are driving a ______?

Deciding to get off the consumer hamster wheel, to live smaller and get out of debt, changed things. It was a wake up call. It forced us to look inward.

Do we want our son to grow up in a home where it’s always about the next thing to buy or the next thing to upgrade?


Do we want him to grow up in a home where being good citizens and spending time with each other are the focus?

When you get new eyes about how you want to live your life, it’s less tempting to be envious of what everyone else has.

Envy is a choice.

Sometimes I wonder how I ended up with a circle of friends and family that are so damn successful: Senior VPs, marketing gurus and others that have generally kicked butt in the workplace. They have huge salaries, loads of responsibility and really cool business cards.

My last corporate job was a few rungs up from entry level.

When I play the comparison game it’s pretty depressing.

Instead of comparing, I try to be thankful. I’m thankful my friends have received the recognition they deserve, that they’ve found careers they find fulfilling and that I’m doing what I want right now too (even if it comes with a negative salary).

Stuff does not equal contentment.

Stacey was specifically asking about house envy. How do you handle your friends and family having huge show homes with all the accoutrements when you’ve living in a small and modest space?

There are some gorgeous homes here in the Isle of Man. Georgian town homes that have been beautifully restored and renovated. I’ve been in a few and, wow, they are spectacular.

I’m sure the families that live in them enjoy the space and beauty every day.

When I think about my family moving into a big and beautiful home I know that what we would give up for it would actually reduce our daily contentment. I’d spend more time cleaning. The increased rent and utilities would mean a reduction in some other area of our life, probably travel. We wouldn’t have the ease and peace of mind of our son always being within ear shot. We’d give up our ocean view and easy access to the beach. Playing out this kind of scenario in my head allows me to appreciate the nice things my friends have, without feeling the need to own them myself.

It’s easier to not be envious when you know that stuff won’t make you happier.

Any suggestions for Stacey on how you battle envy or jealousy?

4 Life Lessons From Not Making the Olympic Team

I booked our flights to attend the London 2012 Olympics this week.

It’s almost a no brainer for us to go: two of my good friends will be racing and representing Canada in the Women’s 8+ rowing event. They have an excellent chance of not only making the podium but winning. Since we’re now just a few hundred miles from London, instead of several thousand, I haven’t had a tough time convincing my husband that this trip will be worth it. Add on that my sister is now living in London (and we have a free place to stay) and you can understand how easy it was to decide to go.

We’re excited to don red and white t-shirts and cheer on Team Canada with other rowing fans.

But there’s a small difference between me and the other supporters we’ll be seated with: I was seconds away from being an Olympian myself in 2004.

I lived and breathed the sport of rowing for over a decade. I was a junior champion. I received a full athletic scholarship to one of the top collegiate rowing programs in the USA. I represented Canada internationally in over a half dozen events. I wore the red and white racing suit, I was in the boat when the umpire called out “Canada, Lane 3” and I crossed the finish line with a bronze medal at the 2003 World Rowing Championships where me and eight other women secured a spot for Canada at the 2004 Olympics.

But I never made it to the Olympics. I came close but I was beaten by athletes that were faster and stronger than me that year.

You might think that coming so close to a such huge goal, and then not making it, would haunt a person. That watching a sporting event, seeing athletes sing their national anthem as the flags are raised, would fill me with pangs of regret and thoughts of what could have been.

But it doesn’t.

I’ve learned more from failure than winning. Eight years after my sporting dreams ended I can honestly say, I’m okay with not making it to the Olympics.

Life has continued, blossomed and brought so many surprising and wonderful events since I retired from rowing. While I don’t have the title of Olympian after my name I have a rich life that wouldn’t be any richer with an Olympic gold medal.

What I did gain from my years of training, racing and then not getting the brass ring are lessons in how to deal with adversity with a smile on your face.

1.) It’s not what happens, it’s how you deal with it.

I’m at the starting line with my teammates for the most important race of my rowing career and what will end up being the pinnacle of my athletic success.

A raging cross tail wind has turned the first half of the 2000 metre rowing course into a frothing mess.

There is nothing fair about these conditions. The boats on one side of the course will get the brunt of the wind. Being hit by a wind from the side will not only challenge the rowers to keep the boat running smoothly through the water but it will require the coxswain, the person steering the boat and calling the race plan out to the athletes, to use the boat’s steering mechanism to keep the boat within the lanes. More steering slows the boat down.

Our boat is on the windy side of the course.

Am I lamenting the poor conditions before the race has even started? Am I thinking how unfair this is and wishing and hoping that the umpires will announce a race delay because of the wind?


I think to myself, I love a tail wind. Bring it on. Throw more wind at us. We’re ready. I’m ready.

Life will throw you curve balls as soon as you think you have it all figured out. You may get bad news upon bad news. You will experience loss, disappointment and frustration at your job, with your family and at the grocery store.

Don’t let your story be about the tragedy or the stumbling blocks. Let your story be about how you dealt with it. Did you let the wind beat you mentally and physically or did you go out there and forget about lane advantages and just race.

Learning to focus on my actions, rather than the challenges, helped me pick up the pieces and find new dreams and goals when I failed to make the Olympic team. It wasn’t easy. I spent a lot of money buying shoes on eBay and tanning (I know – shame on me) to soothe my disappointment. But I also slowly built new dreams and plans. I moved on.

2.) Real friends care about who you are, not what you have.

The national team coach during my rowing era used to ask us, who do you want to go to war with? It was a question that not only affirmed your belief and confidence in your teammates but also made you want to be a better soldier. You wanted to be that person that everyone knew would carry them on their shoulders through the trenches.

I never raced at the Olympics or walked in an Opening Ceremony with the world watching. I don’t have those mementos or memories. But I have something better: fiercely loyal friends that have stuck by me through failure and success. Not making the team didn’t end my friendship with my teammates that did make the team. And in the years since then we’ve kept our friendships despite some long distances. We’ve met up for reunion weekends in snow and sun, celebrated marriages and welcomed new babies.

I don’t have an Olympic medal but I have the friendship of women I respect, admire and would get on a plane for in a heartbeat if they needed me. None of them care that I never went to the Olympics or that I only own two pairs of jeans.

There is a saying in rowing to “keep something in your back pocket” for the third 500 metres of the race. It’s usually the toughest section of the race, before you get a whiff of the finish line and start sprinting. The race can be won or lost in the third 500 metres. I’m thousands of miles away from some of my closest friends but I’ve always got them in my back pocket should I need them. And they know they’ve got me.

Surround yourself with people that like you for who you are – not what you have.

3.) The journey, not the result, is the reward.

I’ve just had the best performance of my rowing career. Everything I thought I wanted I now have.

And yet… I’m not happy.

I realize this as we cross the Atlantic on our return flight from Italy. I had pinned my happiness on a result, on making the team and winning, and now that I have that I see that success doesn’t instantly produce day to day happiness and fulfillment. For many years I had told myself “if I make the team, if I have success, I’ll be happier.” But the truth was that while winning a medal at the World Championships was exhilarating and rewarding for all the work I had put in to it, it didn’t make me smile more.

After getting what I thought was the key to happiness, and not finding it there, I decided to stop complaining about things I couldn’t control. No more counting down the workouts left for the week and no more complaining about 27 consecutive days of rain. I decided to be happy in that day and that moment. I couldn’t control the weather but I could find it in myself to put a positive spin on a tough training week. I could be happy, even if I didn’t make the Olympic team.

If you’re just hanging on for the weekends or summer break or until you hit early retirement, you’re not living. If you’re telling yourself you’ll be happy when you have X amount of money or when you move or when frogs fall from the sky, you’re lying to yourself.

The brass ring won’t make you happy.

You have to find happiness in the day to day. Be it the minutiae of the school run or the daily grind of training for the Olympics.

4.) Take chances.

People die everyday, Frankie – mopping floors, washing dishes and you know what their last thought is? I never got my shot. – Million Dollar Baby

There was a brief period in my early 20’s when my rowing dream was at a standstill. I was at my first post-university job. I had a ‘normal’ life. I was half-heartedly training but knew that if I wanted to make it to the Olympics I would have to quit the job, live off of my meager savings and credit cards and start training full-time.

So, with no real plan on how I would manage it financially, I quit my job and moved to Victoria, British Columbia to train full-time.

I remember when I told my coworkers that I was leaving work a few of them were baffled by my choice. I had a decent job and I was young. I was throwing away some good earning years for a dream with no guarantee.

Before I left I told my mom that I wasn’t sure how I would do it. How would I pay the bills? How would I survive? She told me, jump and the net will appear. It will work out, she said.

She was right.

I got my shot. I had my chance and I swung high and I came close but in the end I didn’t make it.

Take a chance. Even when you’re scared of falling on your face or when you think the odds are too great, the road far too long and the days much too short to pursue your dreams.

Some people never get that chance. Some people don’t even have the opportunity to dream impossible dreams. So when you get an opportunity, when your chance comes, take it. There is no regret in failure, only in not trying at all.


Some days it seems far away, my former life as an athlete. My hands are soft now and the cracked and blistered palms of my training days are long healed and forgotten.

Occasionally I’ll be at the gym and hop on the rowing machine. After a few minutes of disjointed strokes it comes back. I get into a rhythm and I can remember what it felt like to race side by side with my friends and teammates. I can hear the sound of the oars turning in the oar locks, the blades releasing from the water and remember what it felt like to sense that boat next to you, to hear the coach yell out a rate change, feel your legs kick harder, your hands move faster and feel your boat surge ahead.

You’re in the zone, your focus is strong and your body is taking the thousands of miles and years of training and making it all look effortless. There is nothing else in that moment to think of except asking your body to dig deeper. It’s painful. Your lungs tighten and your hamstrings are on fire but you find it.

It feels like flying.

my husband has more clothing than me

… and I’m okay with that.

Different seasons of your life require different amounts, and types, of clothing.

My husband used to have a fluid wardrobe for life and work. He was a touring musician and the casual shirts, t-shirts and jeans that he wore on stage were usually the same things he wore as he drove from gig to gig or went out for brunch with his family. But since making a career switch ten months ago he’s expanded his wardrobe to include formal work clothing.

Things have changed for me too. I’m no longer in an office setting. My clothing requirements have also changed. Most days I’m in my “uniform” of dark jeans, a t-shirt and cardigan.

As you can see from my documentation above and below, we’re not splitting the closet space 50/50.

This is partly due to his work wardrobe requirements and partly due to his more conventional take on clothing. He hangs onto stuff even if he doesn’t wear it much. In the last two years he has let go of a bit of it but there’s still a stack of t-shirts from music festivals or even from his new job, that rarely, if ever, get worn. His hoodie collection has blossomed much to the laundresses chagrin (those thick sweatshirts fill up the washer and take two days to line dry).


Someone else might feel a touch self-conscious at this gender role reversal. But not me.

I love that I’m never the one asking, what should I wear?

Note: about 20% of our clothes were in the laundry hampers at the time of this photo. Also not shown are our workout clothes and under things.


is minimalism a masculine pursuit?


If you don’t look at the underlying thoughts beneath the desire to declutter – then you may just end up a serial declutterer – Lianne Raymond

Last week I read this article from life coach Lianne Raymond about the dark side of decluttering. It’s actually a piece she wrote over a year ago but I found my way to it via the wonderful Marianne Elliott of Zen Peacekeeper.

There is a dark side to decluttering.

I now know that for some people the act of purging their possessions can border on the obsessive. Lianne’s description of her own history with decluttering are quite extreme. Reading about them gave me a new perspective on what I’ve mostly considered a positive pursuit.

I’m not obsessive about decluttering and while I spent a lot of time and energy radically downsizing my possessions, I’ve been quite casual about the upkeep of it. There are a few areas, my husband’s closet, ahem, that I’ve let be for months even after making plans for a big purge. A few toys linger in a box in my son’s room, toys he is no longer interested in and that I haven’t quite decided to keep or let go of.

While I was once quite ruthless about decluttering, I’ve since found a comfortable spot with our level of possessions. What we focus on now is making good choices about items that come into our home. We are quite slow to buy something even after we’ve identified that we want or need it. If I’m leaning toward an obsession with my moderate minimalist lifestyle it’s an obsession with not bringing things into our home.

Of course, I have other areas of my life that I’ve been obsessive about at one time or another. So reading a piece about the negative side of getting rid of your possessions was a good eye opener for this keeper of a decluttering blog.

I don’t want to be the cause of anyone going to a dark place with purging their possessions.

This blog is meant to be a bit of inspiration, how-to and a supportive community. If you feel like decluttering is controlling your life, that your happiness hangs on how many bags you can take to the Salvation Army in a month, it’s time to take a step back. Take some time away from reading about minimalism and turn your focus to other areas of your life for a bit.

Another argument from this post that grabbed me was that minimalism and decluttering are anti the feminine. Lianne delves into the dark side of decluttering as being a masculine pursuit.

… part of a subtle backlash against the re-balancing of the feminine and masculine. It asks us to detach from our inner feminine knowing and give in to a higher authority.  Many of us (me included) buy into this without even realizing what that we are giving away a part of ourselves.

I’m torn on if I agree with Lianne’s argument. I think this is due to the fact that I’m not an obsessive declutterer and that I practice (and preach) a moderate approach to living with less. I still feel there is room to create a beautiful home, one that is warm and inviting, while owning less stuff. And what Lianne views as a demand to detach from “our inner feminine knowing” I see as a chance to detach from the rampant consumerism of our peers.

I’m interested to hear what others think of decluttering as an attack on the feminine. Do you feel that trying to live with less clashes with a desire for warmth, comfort and beauty? Is anyone out there of the obsessive nature and are you struggling with too much decluttering?

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